Remember when a headline like this was once written?
This was actually a very common article, and for good reason. This was written in 2015, when free agency was seemingly on a high. In that very offseason, there were 14 contracts handed out that totaled $50 million or more. Wei-Yin Chen, for example, got an $80 million deal. Ian Kennedy got $70 million. Chris Davis, in one of the more infamous free agency burnouts, got a whopping $161 million.
We know what the rest entailed. The new CBA structure immediately instituted after that offseason became a cause célèbre for the union as it was clear that the new penalties for luxury tax offenses—which included harsher penalties for repeat offenders which included draft picks—began being treated as a de facto salary cap.
2018, at least before the CBA’s effects were apparent, was supposed to be the pinnacle of free agent excess. While some losses to the class were just plain tragic (like Jose Fernandez), and others required serious injuries (like Matt Harvey), most of the remaining pieces should have been in play.
Well, until Clayton Kershaw signed a lucrative but relatively safe extension with the Dodgers for three years and $93 million, clearly taking AAV over years. Then, Jason Heyward chose not to opt out of his deal with the Cubs. Dallas Keuchel not only didn’t sign the big deal people once thought, but he had to be signed on a mid-year, after-the-draft, rebuild-your-value kind of deal with Braves. Craig Kimbrel had to do the same thing with the Cubs.
In total, just six players signed for more than $50 million, and the two obvious ones were Manny Machado and Bryce Harper who each got $300 million and greater, and just one other in Patrick Corbin received more than $100 million. You can see why, along with mid-tier free agents completely being squeezed out of the market last year, people in the union were feeling nervous.
There were certainly some lessons learned. Next year is certainly to be a pretty stacked class—Mookie Betts will look to break the position player contract record of $330 million after just setting the arbitration record at $27 million, and he will be joined by George Springer, JT Realmuto, and James Paxton, among others.
Yet, fundamentally, as we’ve seen, the structure of the game remains intact. Teams will pay Betts the record amount, as they did with Harper, Machado, and Gerrit Cole, because those make sense. But unless the structure of the CBA changes in some way, then I can’t see the whole axis of free agency changing entirely. Which is where 2022 comes into play.
That will be, as a matter of fact, the year the CBA changes, and if any thing is an indication of how things are going, most rumblings are that unless the league fundamentally changes the structure of pay for younger players—which means arbitration and free agency eligibility, it seems there will be an impasse due to the fact that the union has been arguing for diminishing returns for aging veterans.
In that free agency, though, the ideal free agents actually are available. Nolan Arenado’s likely opt-out is that year. Francisco Lindor, Corey Seager, Carlos Correa, Corey Seager, Trevor Story, Anthony Rizzo, Freddie Freeman, and Noah Syndergaard will be in that class as well.
There’s a good argument for... five or six of those players getting $200+ million, if you’d have to guess? Teams are paying for what those players are in talent level, not what their past stats have been, so that will benefit someone like Syndergaard greatly, but dinging someone like Freeman who will be 32.
Nonetheless, that could very well be a fundamental shift in how money is doled out. You have, even more so than last year, an actual glut of players who came up when they were 21 and are now hitting free agency at 27, the supposedly “right” side of 30 that’s a sweet spot for free agency as it currently exists. You also have a changing tectonic plate underneath the game in the CBA, and while totally wishful thinking and it could even be 2023 by the time the changes are even decided, you could have more player-friendly turf for players to negotiate against.
It would, in theory, be a time for teams to put their money where their mouths are. Revenue by that time, by any conservative estimate, could reach ~$12 billion for the league, and here will be the shining stars of the league’s Let The Kids Play era hitting the open market. If there was a time to make use of that revenue as expenditure, that would be the year.